Monday, April 04, 2005
** Religion and PR: Milking the Pope's Death for Maximum Publicity

Cross-posted from my dKos diary.

Let's face it, the Catholic Church has gotten a lot of bad publicity over the last few years. This is particularly true in the US, but the rest of the world heard about the pedophile priests too.

The Church now has a unique opportunity to reverse the trend of bad publicity. No, it's more than that. The Pope's death offers the Church the opportunity for its greatest PR ever. This is the first papal succession in the modern media age, and John Paul II is about as big of a world-wide celebrity as has ever existed (bigger even than Princess Di?).

My question is this: to what extent did the Papacy plan on how they would milk the Pontiff's death for maximum publicity? And a related question, is there an investigate journalist intrepid enough to research and publicize the PR plans that must surely exist somewhere in the Vatican.

I have to admit, I am not particularly interested in the Pope or Catholicism. As an agnostic social liberal, I never much cared for the Church's resistance to birth control and the like, but I did appreciate the opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Last week I read Billmon's take and Kid Oakland's take, (among others) and I'm willing to at least take as a working hypothesis the notion that John Paul II's reign was a mixed blessing for the world, regardless of whether and how many people truly loved the man. Cool. Whatever. That's their thing, not mine. It's a shame that the catholic masses are sad about his death, but frankly I was hoping to move on with my life this week and be able to watch TV again without being subjected to 9/11 like coverage of the Pope's funeral arrangements.

I was therefore not pleased this morning to wake up and see that coverage of the Pope is dominating even my local news channel (NY1 here in New York) and that the funeral is not going to take place until Friday. Friday! You mean we have another whole week of this stuff? What really got me was when some newscaster mentioned a nine-day mourning period.

Then it dawned on me. Two straight weeks of non-stop coverage of the Pope and Catholicism cannot be an accident. Moreover, it's not like the MSM is doing balanced coverage of the Pope and his life. No, it's totally fawning, non-stop, all the time. What is two (or more) weeks of this type of worldwide coverage worth to a church in decline, I'm thinking? Can it help to erase the memory of the pedophile priests? Maybe, maybe not, but it sure helps. A lot. A real, real lot. Imagine what you'd have to pay if you wanted to buy commercial space for this much advertising? Billions. More even, because you have "neutral", "credible" newscasters singing the praises of the Church, and you never get to see anyone on the other side of the issue. Billions doesn't cut it, does it? This PR is truly priceless.

So, I'm thinking, I'm surely not the first person to realize that the Pope's death would lead to two plus weeks of a priceless PR bonanza. Surely the people at the Vatican who are in charge of generating positive publicity for the papacy must have realized years ago that John Paul's death would be literally the greatest thing that ever happened to the church from a PR perspective.

I know how these types of businesses work. When they have a PR opportunity like this, they put tons of marketing drones on the case to generate plans and coordinate activities. All those priests who fawn over the Pope on TV have to be doled out properly to news organizations all over the world after all. Funeral plans, mourning plans, lying in state plans all need to be laid out to maximize the PR potential.

In fact, it strikes me that this is such a PR bonanza, and that this is so important to the church, that even John Paul himself must have been involved in the planning!

In the meantime, while I've seen lots of articles about the state of the church and conventional wisdom about who the next pope might be, I haven't seen a single article about the PR strategy relating to John Paul's death. Is this just too sensitive of a subject? Surely there must be a reporter out there willing to tackle the issue.

In the meantime, if anyone is aware of any news channels running non-Pope coverage, please let me know, or otherwise I might get stuck watching sitcoms and movie reruns until the funeral coverage finally comes to a halt.
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